Introduction 

Organ donation is where a person donates their organs for transplant.

There are two types of organ donation: living and deceased.

Donated organs are given to someone who has damaged organs that need to be replaced.

An organ transplant may save a person's life or significantly improve their health and quality of life.

The need for donors

Between April 1 2013 and March 31 2014, 4,655 organ transplants were carried out in the UK thanks to the generosity of 2,466 donors.

But there are always significantly more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are suitable donors. At the time of writing (24 November 2014), 6,856 people were waiting for transplants.

You can visit the NHS Organ Donation website for the latest statistics, including the average waiting times for a transplant.

There's a particular need for more people of African, African-Caribbean and south Asian ethnicities to join the NHS Organ Donor Register and agree to donate their organs in the event of their death. This is because donation rates among these ethnic groups are low but the need is great.

People from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are more likely to develop health conditions that can lead to kidney failure, and on average they'll wait a year longer for a kidney transplant than a white patient.

There's no upper age limit for joining the register and recording your wish to be a donor.

If you die in circumstances where you could potentially donate, specialist healthcare professionals decide which organs and tissues are suitable based on a number of factors, including your medical and travel history.

Tissue from people in their 70s and 80s is often transplanted successfully, although organs are only selected from those under 80 years of age.

Most people waiting for a donated organ need to have a kidney, heart, lung or liver transplant. One donor can help several people as they can donate a number of organs, including:

  • kidneys
  • liver
  • heart
  • lungs
  • small bowel
  • pancreas

Tissues that can be donated include: 

  • the cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye)
  • bone
  • skin 
  • heart valves
  • tendons
  • cartilage

All donors can choose which organs and tissues they wish to donate. Read more about what organs can be donated.

How to donate

The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential national database that holds the details of around 21 million people who want to donate their organs when they die.

Adding your name to the register and telling your family and friends that you want to be a donor will make it easier for them to agree to donation in the event of your death.

You can join the register in a number of ways. For example, you can:

  • complete an online form 
  • call the free NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23 – lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
  • text SAVE to 62323

Read about how organ donation works for further details about joining the NHS Organ Donor Register and the donation process.

Even though about a third of the population have joined the register, less than 5,000 people a year die in circumstances that allow them to donate their organs.

This means it's even more important for as many people as possible to talk about donation and join the register so no donation is wasted.

Remember to discuss your decision with your family so they're aware.

Checking for a match

When an organ becomes available for donation, it's checked to make sure it's healthy.

The blood and tissue type of both donor and recipient are also checked to ensure they're compatible. The better the match, the greater the chance of a successful outcome.

People from the same ethnic group are more likely to be a close match. Those with rare tissue types may only be able to accept an organ from someone of the same ethnic origin. This is why it's important that people from all ethnic backgrounds register to donate their organs.

Types of donation

There are three different ways of donating an organ. These are known as:

  • donation after brain stem death
  • donation after circulatory death
  • living organ donation

These are described below.

Donation after brain stem death

Most organ donors are patients who die as a result of a brain haemorrhage, severe head injury or stroke and are on a ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU). These donors are called donation after brain stem death donors.

Death is diagnosed by brain stem tests. There are very strict standards for doing these tests and they're always carried out by two experienced doctors.

A ventilator provides oxygen, which keeps the heart beating and blood circulating after death. Organs such as hearts, lungs and livers can be donated by a DBD donor.

Donation after circulatory death

Patients who die in hospital but aren't on a ventilator can donate their kidneys and, in certain circumstances, other organs. They're called donors after circulatory death.

In these cases, the organs must be removed within a few minutes of the heart stopping to prevent them being damaged by a lack of oxygenated blood.

Both types of donors can donate their corneas and other tissue.

Living organ donation

Living organ donation usually involves one family member donating an organ to another family member or partner. The relative is usually related by blood – a parent, brother, sister, or child.

It's also now possible to be an altruistic donor. Altruistic donors are unrelated to the patient but become donors as an act of personal generosity.

Kidneys are often donated from living donors as a healthy person can lead a normal life with only one kidney.

Read more about living donation.

Video: organ donation

Organ recipients and donors' relatives explain what organ donation meant to them.

Media last reviewed:

Next review due:

Page last reviewed: 24/11/2014

Next review due: 24/11/2016